A worker sorts through recyclables last year at the Eco-Cycle facility in Boulder. (Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer)
“Is This the End of Recycling?”
That catchy headline from The Atlantic, as well as a slew of news articles from everyone from the New York Times to Popular Science, has everyone talking about what’s going on with recycling. Boulder County residents who have heard about China’s National Sword policy, and the resulting disruption of domestic recycling markets, have been asking whether their recyclables are being landfilled instead of recycled. Before delving into details, let us reassure readers — your Boulder County recyclables are definitely being recycled (and they always have been) and are not going to the landfill — so keep recycling.
The Boulder County Recycling Center, owned by Boulder County and operated by Eco-Cycle, has a national reputation for producing consistently clean, high-quality materials, largely because local residents and businesses have long been our partners as savvy and conscientious recyclers. While other recyclers are struggling with the fact that China has closed its doors to most imports of recyclables, the BCRC is actually faring better than most. Our marketing strategy for recyclables has always been focused on producing high-quality materials for local and domestic markets.
That said, over the last year or so, global recycling markets have taken a beating. In early 2017, when China closed its ports to paper and plastic recyclables that had more than 0.5% contamination (an almost impossible specification to meet), the United States lost a huge market that had been buying nearly one-third of our country’s recyclables for a decade. China signaled its intent as far back as 2013, but the U.S. recycling industry failed to heed the warning to reduce contamination levels and reinvest in domestic recycling facilities.
The result has been steep price drops for recyclables worldwide, and demoralizing headlines about communities, especially on the coasts, that had no choice but to temporarily landfill paper and some plastics, because their markets vanished overnight. Other communities stopped accepting certain materials, and contrarian pundits claimed that recycling was dead.
Wrong. Recycling isn’t dead. It remains an essential element of a sustainable, circular economy, now and into the future. Locally, the BCRC continues to invest in high-quality material production. Over the past two years, Boulder County has invested several millions of dollars in BCRC equipment upgrades, including two new optical sorters for plastics and enhanced cardboard screens. These investments enable the facility to recycle additional types and more tons of plastic items than ever before and to better recover growing volumes and sizes of cardboard. The county also has further plans to invest in the publicly-owned facility as it supports community values around human and environmental health.
In truth, while we are in a short-term market slump, China’s National Sword has actually presented the U.S. recycling industry with an opportunity. Now is the time to focus on developing new end-markets within the United States so that the full value of these materials is reinvested in our own economies, and more green jobs are created in our state. For example, glass is a material for which there is a closed-loop recycling system in Colorado. Momentum Recycling in Broomfield cleans and processes glass — from the BCRC and much of the Denver metro region — and then sells this material to the Rocky Mountain Bottling Company for Miller/Coors to use to make new beer bottles locally. In this way, recycling provides manufacturing feedstock and creates jobs locally, in a sustainable circular economy. We need to develop more end markets like this right here in Colorado — an idea that we have been promoting with our new governor and state Legislature.
In sum, recycling is alive and kicking in Boulder County and is still one of the most important actions each of us can do every day to protect our environment, combat climate change, conserve natural resources, and create green jobs. So keep up the good work, recyclers. We’ll continue to do our part to help keep recycling thriving in Boulder County if you’ll continue to help us follow the guidelines for producing the cleanest, most marketable recyclables possible.
Learn what’s recyclable in Boulder County at ecocycle.org and BoulderCountyRecycles.org.
Darla Arians is Boulder County Resource Conservation division manager. Judy Wong is Eco-Cycle board president.